London, Asharq Al-Awsat-US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that her country will only deal with HAMAS if it comes to terms with the Palestinian side’s obligations to peace and recognizes Israel’s right to exist, and went on to say that HAMAS must approach the status quo in a manner that is not detrimental to Palestinian interests.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Rice rejected claims that the United States seeks through calls for reform to rearrange the region’s political affairs in a way it is comfortable with, and said: “We are committed to the principle of democracy regardless of who wins the elections.” She added that those who win the elections are obligated to maintain the democratic process that brought them to power. Rice also criticized Iranian interference in Iraq, and said that major powers agree that Iran should not be allowed to turn into a nuclear power. She said the military option was not on the table, noting however that the US President keeps all his options open.
The secretary of state criticized Syria, saying that it was not only Iraq’s problem, but also Lebanon’s and one in the Palestinian territories, and warned that her country would seek further action if Syria refuses to cooperate with the international investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Secretary Rice, how do you view the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories? Do you see it as a positive or a negative sign?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, first let me say that the positive element here is that the Palestinian people went to the polls in large numbers, they voted and they voted peacefully. There were a lot of people who were worried about violence on election day. It didn’t materialize. The Palestinian people clearly voted for a change. I think you’re looking at more than a decade of government that had its problems with corruption and lack of transparency, and the Palestinian people wanted change.
I do believe, though, that while they may have wanted change in that way, that they have not changed their views about the need for a peaceful life and for a better life. And that peaceful life really can only come in the context of a two-state solution where Israel and Palestine live side by side in peace, and in order to do that, in order to meet that aspiration, I think Hamas is going to have to make some difficult choices. It now inherits the obligations of a Palestinian government, authority, that go back now for more than a decade to recognize the right of Israel to exist, to renounce violence, to disarm militias, as is the case in the roadmap, and to find a peaceful solution in two states. And so those are now obligations that the Palestinian people, I think, will expect to be met.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: The US Administration has threatened to cut off or limit financial aid to the Palestinians if HAMAS does not change some of its policies. Wouldn’t this produce a negative result?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, it is not a threat to cut off aid. Let me describe what we have been saying.
The first thing is that clearly the Palestinian people may have humanitarian needs. Everybody understands that and I think we will have to look hard at those humanitarian needs. But when it comes to funding to a government, the United States can’t fund a government that is run by an organization that it lists as a terrorist organization. It’s just a practical matter. I think what you are hearing from the international community is that in order to receive international assistance you have to be committed to nonviolence, you have to be committed to the obligations that have been there for a very long time concerning the peace process and how to move the peace process forward.
In order to expect the Israelis to deal with the issues of freedom of movement or to deal with issues — the kind of intertwined economies that exist between the Palestinian territories and Israel, a government of the Palestinian Authority would have to recognize the right of Israel to exist. There are just certain practical realities and I would hope that now having received this mandate from the Palestinian people that Hamas will think hard about its obligations and how it can discharge them in a way that does not harm Palestinian interests.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Do you see the Administration dealing with Hamas at some point?
SECRETARY RICE: Hamas is a terrorist organization and I don’t see that we have much to talk about until it is clear that Hamas is prepared to live up to these very important obligations that have been taken on behalf of Palestinians for more than a decade. And, you know, there is not much to talk about if Hamas doesn’t recognize the right of Israel to exist. It is not a matter of political recognition even; it is a matter of recognizing the right of Israel to exist. There is not much to talk about if there is a commitment to violence, particularly for a country like the United States that believes the war on terrorism is indivisible, that terrorism and violence are indistinguishable wherever you find them.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: US pressures for reform in the region have resulted in the rise of Islamic movements. Did you at any point consider this outcome? If I may add, it is difficult to imagine that the US Administrations had not considered such a possibility.
SECRETARY RICE: You know, it should say to people the United States trusts the process and trusts democracy. I know so many people who said, oh, the United States wants to arrange the politics of the Middle East in a way that is more favorable toward it. If anything, they should say the United States really stands for principles of democracy. I think that what you have seen is that after 60 years in which authoritarian governments essentially did not allow the development of political space for legitimate political interests to express themselves, the political system produced extremes rather than more moderate political forces.
And I think that will change over time. I think that the requirements of governing will have an effect on movements. I think the opening of political space will allow more moderate forces to begin to develop and to compete in politics. But you can’t say — the United States — well, we believe in democracy but if we don’t really like the outcome then we don’t believe that elections ought to take place or if we’re worried about the outcome we shouldn’t allow the elections to take place. That should say something to the people of the Middle East about what the United States really stands for.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: So you’re not going to change track now?
SECRETARY RICE: No. What is the alternative to believing in democracy so that people can express themselves? The alternative is to say that they shouldn’t have the right to express themselves. The alternative is to say that it is better that the people of the Middle East continue to have no say in who will govern them, continue to have no say in how their interests are going to be represented. And I can assure you, if that is the case, you’re simply going to have more extremism and more violence. Now we have the open contest of ideas.
Now, I will say that those who win elections have an obligation to govern democratically and I hope the people who elected — who elect governments will hold them to the obligation to govern democratically. That means that the same people who have used the open political system to come to power have to keep the system open to opposition to their views and to their ideas. The Palestinian people are a people who have long been known for their tolerance, for the fact that they are multi-religious. There are Christian Palestinians as well as Muslim Palestinians. It is a place that has had an enlightened educational system where women have had a strong place in social life and political life. I have many Palestinian friends who are university professors, women doctors. That should be a part of the democratic process as well. And so when the political system gets opened up, whoever wins has an obligation to keep the political system open.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Does the United States plan to initiate a dialogue with some Islamic movements in the region, like the Muslim Brothers in Egypt for example?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think that this is an evolutionary period. Certainly we aren’t going to talk with terrorist organizations. We’re not going to talk with organizations that espouse violence. We’re not going to talk with organizations that refuse to recognize whole states within the international system, like Israel.
We do not have contacts with Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt because of Egyptian laws, but we are, I think, in many places opening up dialogue with Islamist groups who are democratic in their orientation. For instance, in both Iraq and Afghanistan we have a full range of contacts with groups that are some quite — not violent extremists, but some who I think you would view as being very conservative Islamist groups. They have a place in the political system as long as they recognize the right of others to have a place in the political system.
And so this is a time of evolution in the Middle East. It is a time when I think Middle Eastern states are going to have to come to terms with how Islam relates to open political systems. And that’s much healthier than not having that debate.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Moving on to Iran, what do mean when you say that the United States will not tolerate a nuclear Iran?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I don’t think anybody is prepared to tolerate a nuclear Iran, and it means that we and the Europeans, and I think the Russians also agree with this, there shouldn’t be — the Russians do agree with this. There should not a nuclear Iran. The Chinese agree that there should not be a nuclear-armed Iran. That we have to mobilize all of our diplomatic skill and efforts and means to make sure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon.
That means, in the first instance, making sure that they do not acquire nuclear technologies that can give them breakout capability for a nuclear weapon. That’s why everybody is focused on enrichment and reprocessing, why nobody believes they should have enriching and reprocessing on Iranian territory. And when we are in the Security Council, which I think we are going to have to be — the Iranians have not demonstrated that they are prepared to change their policies — I think you will see more and more tools available to the international system to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Is the diplomatic option the only one you are considering, or is a military option open too?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, it’s not on the agenda because we believe there’s a diplomatic course, but of course the President keeps his options open. He always does and he will in this case, too.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: The United States and others have expressed their concern regarding what they see as Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, how would you evaluate this interference?
SECRETARY RICE: Yes, I think there are concerns that Iran is interfering in Iraq. The Iranians are Iraq’s neighbor and so you would expect there to be open, transparent relations — you know, Iraqi leaders go to Iran, Iranian leaders come to visit Iraq. I don’t think anybody objects to that kind of interchange. It’s natural.
But it should be transparent and the big concern has been that in some places, particularly in the south, there are concerns that Iran may be supporting or feeding insurgencies that could — that are — insurgencies or militias that might — that are continuing to destabilize the country, and they should get out of that business. The British have noted concerns about Iranian technology that has been apparently imported into IEDs and so there is a lot of suspicion and concern about Iranian activities. But I want to be very clear, this is not an issue of Iran having diplomatic relations with Iraq. It should.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Moving on to Iraq, will we see the start of the process of US military withdrawal sometime this year?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, already the United States has decided to bring down from our high levels at the time of the elections our forces. We decided not to deploy one brigade to Iraq that was scheduled to go there; another has gone to Kuwait instead of going directly into Iraq. But this is all a matter of how conditions unfold on the ground and it is a matter of how capable the Iraqi security forces become of maintaining their own security. And I think the good news is that they are becoming much more capable. They effectively took the lead on the elections and did a brilliant job of securing the country on the elections. If you look at some of the towns that were most troubling in what was once called the Sunni triangle in Anbar Province and Ninevah and places like that, you will see that as those cities have been cleared of terrorist presence it is very often Iraqi forces that are now holding that territory to allow the rebuilding to take place.
I think it’s night and day from where the Iraqi forces were even a year ago and they’re rapidly improving. Sometimes they are able carrying on activities completely on their own, sometimes with our support. But we are now in the process of building their command-and-control, building their logistical capabilities, and they’re getting very capable. And so, yes, I would hope that American forces are going to continue to come down because that will mean that Iraqi forces are coming up.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Part of your criticism of Syria is that they are interfering in Iraq’s affairs. Have you observed any signs of cooperation in this regard from the Syrians?
SECRETARY RICE: No, we don’t see cooperation and the Iraqis don’t see cooperation. I do think that there has been some improvement in the infiltration on that border, but it is also because we and the Iraqi forces had very large-scale military operations to deal with the terrorist activities that were going on in that region. I think it is less due to Syrian cooperation than it is to successful military operations that have taken some of those terrorist areas out of action.
But Syria is not just a problem for Iraq. It is a problem for Lebanon, where it continues to try to intimidate people, there continue to be assassinations in Lebanon. It continues to be a problem in the Palestinian territories. And I’d just note that there was a meeting when Ahmadinejad went to Damascus that was quite a gathering. The leadership of Palestinian rejectionists, the leadership of Hezbollah, the Iranians and the Syrians. That says something about the Middle East that Syria and Iran see and it is 180 degrees from the Middle East that everybody else is trying to build, and so I think it’s worth paying attention to.
ASHARQ Al-AWSAT: Do you see the Syrians cooperating with the investigation of Al-Hariri’s assassination? Where does this issue go from here?
SECRETARY RICE: I think the Syrians have been minimally cooperative and I think we will get a report at some point. But the Syrians should be doing everything they can to be maximally cooperative because they’re under a Chapter 7 resolution and if they don’t cooperate the investigators can come back and ask for action against them.